Happy Father’s Day to all the Dads out there. When I was taking this opportunity to remember my Dad, I was thinking about how he indirectly inspired my career in fitness. It’s a tale of irony and coincidence… pull up a chair.
People have always said that I look more like my Dad than my mom. I know what they were really noticing was that both of us were obese. Despite the physical resemblance, my dad and I were not incredibly close. I was 8 years old when he and my mom split up. He moved to another state and we did not have regular visits after then. I didn’t really reconnect and get to know my dad as a person until I finished college. It was always emotionally awkward between us. We didn’t have very many of the common experiences that daughters have with their dads, and he always felt guilty and apologized too much for not being there.
My dad was the person who you might kindly call a “big guy.” He had the whole slew of health problems that came with obesity. My dad’s idea of going out to dinner was to grab some hot dogs out of the food roller machines at the convenience store down the street from him. He would even drive there. During one visit he argued with me ferociously when I suggested that I would rather eat “real food.” I thought I had scored a real victory when I managed to convince him to agree to eat a roast beef sandwich at Arby’s- but at the register I learned he agreed to go because he had a weakness for their Hershey Pie. Oh well, at least his dinner wasn’t fried.
The only active thing I ever saw my dad do was play Bocce. Bocce is a lawn game in which opposing players try to land their ball closest to a target ball, called the “jack.” There can be a lot of strategy in Bocce, as you try to make an underhand toss that will either hit the jack and leave your ball closest to the jack, or knock other balls out of the way and move your own ball into a favorable position. There may also be some brutal trash talking in Bocce, but maybe that’s just a House Rule. My dad treasured a set of Bocce balls that he had picked up in Italy when he was a young man in the military. He taught everyone he knew how to play Bocce out in the front yard of his house. Nobody I else I knew had ever heard of this game, and sometimes I thought he made it up. I never even knew that regulation Bocce courts existed until a few years ago.
In the last few years of my dad’s life, he was very ill, and he kept refusing to let anyone come visit him. There really wasn’t any good explanation for what was wrong with him, he would just say “it’s not a good time” for a visit. Eventually the problem was diagnosed as a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer that attacks the body’s immune system. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma can cross the blood-brain barrier, and this was responsible for the brain tumors that had disturbed his sense of balance, causing him to fall down a lot, and changed his personality. By the time the doctors figured out what was wrong with him, there really wasn’t much left to be done. We struggled to learn about his condition from websites.
One day I got a postcard in the mail from Team in Training, a fundraising arm of the Leukemia and Lymphoma society. Team in Training raises funds for blood cancer research and patient services by training people for endurance races- marathons, half-marathons, triathlons, and bicycling races. I went to a TNT information meeting thinking that I would just learn more about the organization and make a donation. The speaker listed the events and races that the group would be training for in the upcoming season. Coincidence Alert: The race that was nearby, the one with the lowest fundraising minimum, was scheduled to take place on Father’s Day. I guess I’m a sucker for that kind of coincidence. To everyone’s surprise, by the end of that meeting I was signed up to train for a half marathon.
Was this insane? I was a 285 pound couch potato training to walk 13 miles for my dying father, and we weren’t really even that close. My dad never found out what I was doing in his honor- he passed away about a month into my training. I wore my new running shoes to my father’s funeral, and in my mind, the dirt from my father’s grave was still on my shoes when I participated in the half marathon. I wasn’t even able to finish the half marathon. The longest distance I had been able to complete in training was 12 miles. The day of the half marathon was quite warm, and I was very slow, lagging at least 20 minutes behind the last person in front of me. They sent a coach backwards on the course to walk me in to the finish, but my poor conditioning and the heat got to me. I doubled over with stomach cramps at the Mile 10 water stop, and I had to drop out of the race.
I know, that story just screams “You Should Be In Fitness” doesn’t it? It’s a really unlikely beginning for a career change. I wasn’t able to finish the race in his honor, just as he wasn’t able to overcome the disease that took his life. But somewhere along the way I acquired a mission. I continued volunteering with Team in Training so long that the higher-ups blew my mind and sent me to certify as a coach. Powerbar, the sports nutrition company, blew my mind when they gave me a coach sponsorship for four years. I learned a lot about marathon training and sports nutrition, but I kept getting injured myself. I finally found a fitness trainer who helped me understand that spending my entire lifetime in a chair is not the ideal set-up for acquiring the skills necessary to finish a half marathon… especially when you haven’t thrown in a few 5Ks along the way. I studied the human body and grew to understand biomechanics and the exercises necessary to correct years of poor movement. I became a personal trainer myself, aiming to be the kind of trainer and coach that I needed when I was taking my first steps off the couch.
It’s funny how things turn out. When you take the first step, you cannot imagine where this journey will end up taking you. One small decision cascaded into an entirely new path.
Before he passed away, I asked if Dad if he would let me take the Bocce balls home with me. He said no. After he passed away, I asked his wife again about the balls, and she said I could have them. Sorry Dad, Nana said I could keep them! We use them for the annual Father’s Day Memorial Bocce Tournament.